I suppose Ron’s death was not a surprise. He was 92 and more than ready to depart. But the expected can still, and perhaps normally does, strike as if unexpected for those left behind.
He had lived with us for over two years, surviving our move from Epsom to Mickleham in 2004, albeit with the befuddled equanimity that can accompany settled states of dementia. His six months spent in Mickleham were very largely confined to our dining room, which contained both his chair and his bed. From his chair he spent many an hour watching football. Poignantly, a single match played over and over might have sufficed, especially if it involved Arsenal.
It was early one Saturday evening that he said to me: ‘I’m feeling very tired.’ ‘Would you like to go to bed?’ ‘Yes, I think that would be a good idea.’ As I was helping him get ready and move the two metres from his chair to his bed, he said: ‘I just want oblivion.’ Twice before he had implied as much, but never so bluntly. ‘Have a good sleep’, I said. He was weak and traversing those two metres was not easy; but then it often wasn’t. No sooner had I settled him down than he died, no more than ten minutes after what proved his final words. As his departure dawned on me, to be honest my mind emptied of … Well, it just emptied. Annette was as ever an impeccable source of support.
What to do if someone dies? I rang our general practice ‘out-of-hours’ and a message was relayed to a locum who was on a call. She would attend asap. Apparently the police require to be informed, and a postmortem carried out, if the deceased has not been seen by a doctor in a two-week period prior to death. Two police officers came by; they drank tea and were kind and sympathetic. The locum arrived and confirmed the death. But here’s a thought. Ok, Ron had left his body behind and I am an atheist; but I can see no contradiction in saying that it was ‘as if’ his soul had vacated its embodiment for his lifespan. I shall return to this.
What followed is worthy of a Monty Python script and would have amused Ron. An ambulance arrived at the sumit of our hill. It was not its crew’s normal vehicle, which was being repaired. Unfortunately its brakes were not up to parking and it kept slipping back down the hill; the driver had to ask our neighbour to move their car so he could take advantage of their flat parking space. The body was prepared for removal. A second unanticipated problem. Our house is 56 steps down from the hill. The outside lighting failed, so I had to carry a torch to illuminate the way for the stretcher. No soul, and now no body. This was not the end of what proved a veritable comedy of errors. A series of subsequent phone calls on my part failed to locate the body. The undertaker’s local office was closed (for good), and nor were any other mid-Surrey ‘branches’ able to trace its whereabouts. Eventually it was tracked down to East Surrey Hospital, where the postmortem was to be conducted. They would ring me with the results. They didn’t. When all was eventually said and done I noticed that Ron was recorded as a female. Ok, I was not as amused as Ron would have been, but I made no complaint. Nor was I distressed by what seemed like a conspiracy of incompetence: when we are gone, we are gone. My dad was no part of this.
I confess to being surpised to read the following in Bryan Magee’s Ultimate Questions: ‘ … I am afraid of death. What frightens me is the prospect of permanent oblivion.’ But he adds: ‘I do find, however, that my fear of death decreases as the amount and quality of the life I would lose by it decreases.’ This, I think is the point. For many years I lectured on ‘death and dying’ to the UCL medical students. I used to move from a first to a second statement. The first was: ‘I can’t think of anything worse than going to a nightclub, and I bet you can’t understand that: surely I might as well be dead!’ The second: ‘I can now just about get my head round someone in the fourth age who is ready to die.’ For many a year the ‘just about’ was something of a shot in the dark, but, aged 68, it is just decimal point clearer now, and I hope the intended message was transmitted: the way we feel about, even address, such ‘ultimate questions’ is at least partly a function of our age/positioning in the lifecourse. A person can indeed by ‘ready to die’ (and this perhaps needs to be spelled out in Kubler-Ross’ final ‘stage of dying’).
It was by happenstance a ‘good death’. Ron was ready and I was present and holding his hand as he died. I found it cathartic to give way to tears a day or two after he left, and I admit I’m struggling a bit writing this. Mum and dad, Margaret and Ron, had/have left. Ashes to ashes. Atheism notwithstanding, I now and again feel that these good people and parents constitute a kind of superego. As the research literature confirms, the dead live on, the past lives on in and informs the present. My daughters too will member them. For my part, it is as if (that phrase again) my parents are looking on, that everything I have done, and do, is laid bare. It contextualises achievement. I am not unrealistic, there may be things I know nothing of; but I would be content to accomplish just a portion of what they did.